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Ally McCoist

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On This Day (29 August 1981): Ally McCoist makes Sunderland debut in six-goal thriller

Alan Durban had beaten off fierce competition to land the highly-rated Scottish striker, who made his SAFC debut 40 years ago today.

Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

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Ipswich Town: Cooper, Mills, McCall, Thijssen, Osman, Butcher, Wark, Muhren, Mariner, Brazil, Gates Sub Not Used: O’Callaghan

Sunderland AFC: Turner, Hinnigan, Munro, Buckley, Clarke, Hindmarch, Chrisholm, Ritchie, Brown (McCoist ‘62), Rowell, Pickering

Ipswich Town and Sunderland AFC – two of English football’s most famous names – are now languishing in the third tier of the pyramid. But, 40 years ago today, Sunderland travelled down to Suffolk to take on the UEFA Cup holders, and played their part in an exciting Division One clash that produced plenty of goals – and saw a young Ally McCoist make his debut away at Portman Road.

Manager Alan Durban was building an exciting Sunderland side, and when we look down the teamsheet we see some great names: Chris Turner, Gordon Chrisholm, Gary Rowell, Nick Pickering... and the 18-year-old from St Johnstone was the icing on the cake.

Sunderland had beaten-off competition from Rangers, Wolves, and Middlesborough to the starlet’s signature, and Durban saw Ally McCoist as very much a player for the future. Quoted in the excellent Give Us Tomorrow Now: Alan Durban’s Mission Impossible by David Snowdon, the gaffer was keen to demonstrate that it was the development environment on Wearside that had attracted him to the club:

I am just pleased that he has selected Sunderland in an affluent market and not because of the money we have offered him but the future he sees at the club. He is a very mature lad but we have not bought him for now but as a long-term investment.

McCoist had signed three days earlier and been introduced to the press on the pitch at Roker Park following a £355,000 deal with the Perth club. He had been described as ‘Scotland’s most wanted player’ in the Belfast Telegraph earlier in the week as various managers scrambled to persuade him to sign.

But it was Durban who had landed him, and the manager named him on the bench as Sunderland travelled to Portman Road to take on Ipswich in the season’s opener.

In front of over 24,000 fans, Ipswich had the first clear opportunity of the game, with their ‘keeper Paul Cooper punting the ball downfield and Paul Mariner running onto the bouncing ball and heading the ball over Turner and towards the goal, only to be denied by the crossbar.

It took 41 minutes for the deadlock to be broken; Tom Ritchie scoring for the Lads with a header from a Mick Buckley set-piece. The two combined again after the break, this time Ritchie was the provider for Buckley to slot the ball home to score. But Ipswich struck back immediately through a John Wark header to make the game 2-1.

Cue the introduction of McCoist, brought on due to a knock to Alan Brown on 60 minutes. It didn't take him long to make an impact, his back-heel setting up Buckley to restore our two-goal advantage on 63 minutes.

Sunderland looked to be home-and-dry at that stage, but The Tractor Boys were a proper quality side and showed it a minute later when Eric Gates, later of this parish, pulled a goal back and then got another on 80 minutes to bring the scores level at 3-3.

Eric Gates

We could have lost the game before the end, Turner putting in a man of the match performance – with a bit of help from the woodwork – to keep the scores level and frustrate the Blues’ fans. All-in-all, with an away draw against a top European side, it wasn’t a bad start to the season.

After the game, however, Durban bemoaned the change in the rules which meant that teams now gained three points for a win rather than two – the game was going to the dogs! Quoted in the next day’s Sunday Mirror, Durban commented:

Three points for a win is an insult to the game. We are now two points behind some teams - after putting in a performance like that.

Ipswich manager Bobby Robson clearly wasn’t convinced about three-points-for-a-win either, but was pleased with the football on show that day:

It was a great match, but instead of losing one point we have lost two. But we have got to stick to the system. Our fans went home delighted and that is what is important.

Three points for a win ultimately proved effective in improving the attacking play in football overall and spread throughout the world after being introduced in England. Sunderland would go on to narrowly avoid relegation that season, whilst Ipswich would miss out on the title by four points.

(Incidentally, the new three points system had an effect on only one club’s league position: Sunderland. We would have finished one place higher in the table had the two points per win remained – but would have only avoided relegation by one point, as opposed to two. Surprisingly that was the only difference the introduction of three points for a win made to the final league table.)

McCoist’s stay on Wearside would only last two years before he was transferred back up to Scotland with Rangers, where he would make his name as one of Britain’s premier strikers.

He scored nine goals in 65 games for the Black Cats, including 19 appearances from the bench. As with so much from that early-eighties era under Durban, the story of Ally McCoist at Sunderland is very much a case of what might have been...


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